NEAR-MISS AT GROCERY STORE FIRE
By KEITH S. MACISAAC, Fire Chief — Wheeling Fire Department
On December 24, 1994 at 9:38 a.m., the Wheeling (Illinois) Fire Department responded to a reported fire in the Franklin Food Store; a 13,000 square foot grocery store. The store was centrally located in the center of a L-shaped strip shopping center in the heart of the community. The structure was built in 1961 with masonry walls and a wooden bowstring truss roof. An extensive concealed space existed between the finished ceiling and the deck of the bowstring truss roof. Upon arrival of the first due engine company, personnel encountered a building filled with dense smoke, extensive heat, and what was described as the sounds of a "train" running overhead. Apparently the fire was running within the concealed space made by the bowstring truss roof. The decision was made to focus the fire suppression efforts on a defensive mode of attack and to contain the fire loss to the building of origin. Over the next several hours, eighteen (18) surrounding fire departments and a total of eighty-five fire suppression personnel were required to contain the fire to the building of origin.
During the early stages of the fire ground operations, a series of errors occurred that resulted in fire-fighters being up on top of the grocery store roof; despite an on-going defensive fire ground operation. Eventually, they were ordered off of the roof and as the last firefighter was climbing onto a ground ladder, the grocery store roof collapsed. All of the firefighters narrowly escaped serious injury and death. Had the roof collapse occurred seconds before, one (1) or more fire-fighters would have been killed. The bowstring truss roof collapse came approximately four (4) minutes after the order for all personnel to vacate the roof was given and approximately twenty-five (25) minutes after the arrival of the first engine company on the scene.
In the days and weeks following the fire, the near-miss incident was heavily discussed and debated among the various surrounding fire departments, as well as within the Wheeling Fire Department. In reviewing the incident, it was learned that more than one particular error in judgment had occurred which allowed the near-miss incident to develop. The idea of the "wood truss warning signs" developed out of the concern that division and company officers lost focus of the changing fire conditions at the grocery store and its correlation to the overall safety of personnel working on a wood truss roof. The intent of the sign is to provide a visual reminder to command personnel of the type of roof associated with the structure and to visually remind them to reevaluate the general operations plan occasionally. In order for the signs to be effective, they needed to be readily visible under all weather and lighting conditions, yet not distracting to the general appearance of the structure. Furthermore, the signs could not create the false perception to the public that buildings with wood truss roofs are unsafe under non-fire conditions.
The solution was a 9 inch tall by 3 inch wide aluminum sign covered with red 3M diamond grade reflective film (or equivalent). In the center of the sign is a 3 inch high letter "T" made out of 3M white reflective film (or equivalent). The colors were selected because they were similar to those of a stop sign and would
August 1994 / Illinois Municipal Review / Page 9
hopefully catch the attention of personnel. By using reflective film materials, the signs would be visible at night when hit by light beams from headlights and/or scene lighting. The letter "T" is intended to show that the roof is some form of wood truss construction. The general idea behind the signs was to visually remind personnel (particularly company officers & division commanders) to "stop" (based upon the colors used in the signs) and think "truss" (based upon the letter "T"). On the bottom edge of the sign is a "Wheeling Fire Department" reflective sticker intended to remind property owners and tenants that the signs are there for the benefit of the fire department. With this friendly reminder, hopefully the building owners and/or tenants will not block the view of the signs and will remind them to maintain the signs. Near the top and bottom of the sign are pre-drilled bolt holes for mounting the sign to the exterior of the structure. It was decided that mounting the signs approximately five (5) feet up from finished grade (approximately eye height) and to the right of all man-doors into the structure meant that the signs would be visible to fire suppression personnel entering the structure through all normal means, while still being visible to command personnel on the exterior of the structure. In those cases where there is no structural means of bolting the signs onto the structure (ex. glass store fronts), heavy duty double sided foam tape is used to attach the signs directly to the structure's glass front.
Once the idea of the wood truss warning signs was developed, it was submitted to the village board for review and comment. At a work shop session with the village board, the fire in the grocery store was discussed in detail and a video showing the near-miss occurring was shown. In addition, slides were presented showing various commercial/industrial buildings within the community that had wood truss roofs; including several that had non-bowstring wood truss roofs. A particular key factor focused on was the fact that with many of these structures, it was nearly impossible to see from ground level that there was a wood truss roof associated with the building. This was because many of these buildings were built more than twenty (20) years ago and to remain competitive in the real estate market, these buildings had been "modernized". This meant that new facades had been installed and, occasionally, secondary roofs and/or alternate roofing materials (i.e., membrane roofing materials) had been installed over the existing roof structure. This made it nearly impossible for fire department personnel unfamiliar with the building to know what type of roof structure existed. Since the Wheeling Fire Department uses a combination of predetermined automatic aid/mutual aid for specific geographic areas & target hazards within the department's service area, it is possible that a company officer from a neighboring fire department may be first on the scene. These individuals would most likely not be as familiar with a particular building as someone from the Wheeling Fire Department would be. After reviewing these facts with the village board, they voted on April 18, 1994 to adopt Ordinance 2948 amending Title 14, Fire, of the Wheeling Municipal Code by adding Chapter 14.08 "Wood Truss Warning Signs". In addition to approving the concept of the warning signs, it was decided that the signs would be provided by the Village of Wheeling, free of charge, to the property owners. To date, approximately a dozen occupancies have installed the warning signs on their buildings.
About The Department
The Village of Wheeling is located approximately seven (7) miles north of Chicago's O'Hare Airport. The fire department is fully paid, serves approximately 38,000 residents in a twelve (12) square mile service area, and has an ISO rating of Class 4; village & district. The department's service area includes a large industrial base, many multi-family complexes, and a municipal airport. The department has two (2) stations with thirteen (13) personnel per shift operating on three (3) shifts. Four (4) engines (two (2) reserve), one (1) ladder tower, three (3) MICU ambulances (one (1) reserve), a special teams squad, and a twin agent airport response vehicle is utilized by the department. In 1993, the Wheeling Fire Department responded to a total of 3,071 incidents; 2,095 were medical-related and 976 were fire-related.
About the Author
Keith S. Maclsaac has been the Fire Chief of the Wheeling (Illinois) Fire Department for the past four (4) years. He has seventeen (17) years of diverse fire service experience; including both municipal and industrial. He has a Bachelor's Degree in Fire Protection & Safety Engineering Technology from Oklahoma State University, in addition to two (2) related Associate's Degrees, and is a graduate of the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officer Program.
Page 10 / Illinois Municipal Review / August 1994